Rain or shine, Colm Lambert loves to sit on a bench overlooking Rosslare Harbor on the south east tip of Ireland and watch the new cargo ships and passenger ferries coming in from the Irish Sea.
“They’re from France, Spain, Belgium, Holland – it’s great to see,” he said. “Brexit has made a terrible difference here. Boris Johnson did Rosslare a favor.”
Lambert, 81, a retired Irish customs officer, may draw the line when it comes to erecting a statue to the former British Prime Minister, but he appreciates the transformative impact of Brexit on the once-stagnant port where he used to work. “That created jobs.”
A little over 340 nautical miles away in Cherbourg, Normandy, Yannick Millet, the port’s manager, is just as enthusiastic. “Britain may be suffering from Brexit,” he said. “But for us it’s boom time. Traffic with Ireland is through the roof.”
For decades, the cheapest and quickest way to transport goods between Ireland and the continent was via the so-called ‘land bridge’ across Britain and the Dover-Calais crossing. Brexit’s double whammy of customs controls and delays has hugely increased both costs and uncertainty, prompting businesses to bypass the UK.
The consequences for both ports were spectacular. Cherbourg and Rosslare had an opportunity through Brexit to convince traders that the longer sea voyage between Ireland and mainland Europe was now viable, and they grabbed it with both hands.
Before the UK left the EU, Rosslare Europort was an underutilized facility with only six departures a week to the continent, all to Cherbourg. Now it has more than 30 to Cherbourg, Le Havre, Bilbao, Dunkirk and Zeebrugge – a fivefold increase that has resulted in record total freight traffic.
“Brexit has given us an opportunity,” said Glenn Carr, the port’s general manager. “The industry wanted stability in the supply chain. We have adapted.”
Weekly sailings from Cherbourg to Irish ports will have more than doubled to around a dozen by this summer, with Irish Ferries four times a week to Dublin, Stena Line six times a week to Rosslare and Brittany Ferries also to Dublin following the Rosslare route long absence.
“There is a real dynamic in Ireland and authorities at both ends are working hard to encourage it,” Millet said. “In terms of our passenger numbers, Ireland has now overtaken the UK and will certainly continue to do so. And the freight is tripled. Ireland is looking more and more like the future.”
In 2019, when the UK was still in the Brexit transition phase, fewer than 35,000 lorries passed through the Port of Normandy on their way to Ireland, Millet said; the average for the last two years, when the UK was outside the EU’s regulatory purview, was 96,000.
“It’s absolutely a Brexit effect,” he said. “The land bridge over Britain is broken and we are the beneficiaries.”
The same goes for Rosslare. Geographical location favored the port closest to mainland Europe, as well as spare capacity and decent motorway links to Dublin and Belfast. Consequently, the post-Brexit numbers tell their own story.
Freight to and from mainland Europe increased from just 36,000 units in 2019 to 125,000 in 2021 and 137,000 in 2022. This more than offset a slump in freight to and from the UK, from 104,000 units in 2019 to 65,000 a year 2021 and 63,500 declined last year.
The rise in continental traffic has created more than 200 new jobs around the port of Rosslare, which is operated by the state’s Irish Rail, and given a boost to the region as a whole, Carr said. “And the port is the engine driver for the Southeast,” he added.
Investment in and around Rosslare is increasing. The port itself has embarked on an ambitious expansion and overhaul program – including new access roads, deepening the port, automation, digitization and offshore wind energy – at a cost of over €400 million, which will be by far the largest in its history.
Eamonn Hore, deputy chief executive of Wexford County Council, said a similar sum would be spent on district infrastructure, including a motorway extension that will link Rosslare directly to the Irish capital and Belfast.
“There is an economic boom underway in the Southeast,” Hore said. “Many new companies, especially technology companies, have started to settle here. And Brexit is definitely a driver, an accelerator in this process.”
Nolan Transport, a family business, recently opened a 150,000 cubic meter warehousing and logistics facility outside the port, an investment of 12 million euros. “Brexit has caused tremendous disruption for us, but our European business is now thriving,” said Noel Nolan, one of the managing directors.
The new warehouse has increased the company’s capacity from 5,000 pallets to 22,000 pallets. It plans to build four more and expects to fill at least half of those with UK goods. “Customs come with costs and delays,” Nolan said. “We believe that we can offer a one-stop solution.”
It now makes sense for many companies to bypass Ireland’s former natural trading partner, he said: “We used to source all the parts for our trucks from the UK, now we do so from Italy and Holland. We have learned to live with the extra transit day.”
Cherbourg is also expanding and modernizing both passenger and cargo facilities. A new rail freight link to Bayonne in south-west France is due to open next year, increasing transit traffic between Spain, Portugal and Ireland via the Normandy port by an estimated 20,000 units per year.
The port is also increasingly busy building and assembling turbines for offshore wind farms, three of which are being built off the coast of north-west France. Irish wind power engineers were in Cherbourg last year to explore opportunities for collaboration.
And there are determined efforts in both southern Ireland and northern France to promote the tourist, cultural and educational links between the regions. The connections are historic, noted Hore, who was visiting Cherbourg last week for an event on the WB Yeats ferry hosted by Tourism Ireland.
The Normans first landed on the south-west coast of Wexford 850 years ago at the request of Dermot MacMurrough, the deposed King of Leinster, who enlisted their assistance in retaking his kingdom, Hore said.
“They never really left,” he said, “and they’ve had a really profound impact on everything from our architecture to our agriculture.” Even today, more than a third of the surnames in County Wexford are of Norman origin.”
The traffic boom has prompted authorities in both countries to further strengthen ties. A season of cultural events this spring and summer will include performances, performances and events by Norman writers, artists and musicians in Dublin and by Irish artists, writers and musicians in Normandy.
Cherbourg Town Hall and its partners are also organizing an English public speaking contest for schools in and around Cherbourg, a French speaking contest for schools in Ireland and a series of cultural events around the Fastnet sailing race.
“For young people in particular, it is important to maintain ties with Ireland,” said Valérie Isoird of Cherbourg Town Hall. “Since Brexit, for example, school exchanges with the UK have become very difficult – children need an individual passport and those from non-EU families need a visa. Several classes had to give up.”
Isoird said Cherbourg and its region are working on long-term partnerships with education authorities in southern Ireland. “Mobility is precious and experiences with other cultures are enriching,” she said. “For us, as far as England is concerned, Brexit has put up a barrier. Ireland is now the natural choice.”
Tourism is also growing. Julien Bougon, deputy tourism director for the Cotentin Peninsula, where Cherbourg is located, said his focus is on building “slow tourism”: attracting Irish visitors who would stay longer in the region for its wild countryside, historic ports and good food , rather than hurtling south.
Tourism Ireland’s Monica MacLaverty said around 550,000 French holidaymakers a year already represent Ireland’s fourth largest market. “And ferry passengers are valuable,” she said. “They bring their car, travel around, stay longer.”
Outside the ferry, on the Quai de Caligny overlooking Cherbourg’s marina, Etienne Lebastard, who runs Comptoir Irlandais, which sells everything Irish from sweaters and soda bread to whiskey and Celtic jewelry, said he was digging in growing interest.
“This store has been around for more than 20 years,” he said. “Brexit appears to have been good for Ireland and France. For Britain? I’m not sure.”